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3 In the Key – Toronto Raptors Game Day Preview vs. Oklahoma

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Last time Durant made a few posters of the Raptors...

Last time Durant made a few posters of the Raptors...

Do late season runs matter?

Coming from the home of the perennial late season run home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, I think we can all safely say that it matters very little. If I’m a paying fan, I never want to see my team "develop the young talent" because it’s just not what I paid to watch. No matter what happens, I want to watch my team play to win.

On the other hand, the long term growth of the team is much more important. Should Roko Ukic get his minutes now, while he can? Should Triano be emptying out his bench to make sure they get some experience for scrubs like Jawai and O’Bryant? I’m not convinced that the Raptors haven’t already seen enough of their "young talent" right now and I would rather they get the bulk of their training in the summer so that they come back with a fresh new outlook. In a year where the Raptors have struggled to develop any chemistry, I still believe it’s important for them to establish something so that Bryan Colangelo can objectively decide what pieces simply do not work together.

For example, in my opinion the jury is still out about whether you bring back Shawn Marion and at what price. We’ve seen him have some very good, if unspectacular games where he's filled his stat line like his Matrix moniker suggests he would. We’ve also seen him look completely average to the point where some people would rather have Joey Graham on the team next year at any cost.

Other than that, there has been nothing to indicate that Patrick O’Bryant will be back next season and Nathan Jawai is about as raw as "the great" Aleksandar Radojevic at this point of his career. Ukic has already shown us some flashes of brilliance and has had to carry the team on several occassions this year, especially in some huge wins. But dribbling, defense, and shot mechanics are things he will have to work on in the off season rather than the regular season.

And the Raptors surely cannot simply play a complete rotation made up of scrubs. If you place Nathan Jawai, Patrick O'Bryant, Pops Mensah-Bonsu, Joey Graham, and Roko Ukic on the floor at the same time, they will just learn to repeat their collective mistakes rather than learn to play at a high level to correct them. So if you mix some starters in with this lineup of raw talent, you will hopefully show this group of young Raptors how to play their best basketball. Or, you may destroy what little chemistry we are finally establishing in these final weeks.

So for now, I’d much rather advocate the Raptors firmly establish their chemistry with the intention of developing their youth in the off season.

That being said, the Raptors tonight take on a club that suddenly has built an extremely strong, young foundation. Yes, it's TO vs. OK City and for a better perspective we turn to our "Blogging with the Enemy" piece featuring Ryen Khoury of Welcometoloudcity.com:

1. RaptorsHQ: At the start of the season, the Thunder looked on pace to beat the NBA's futility record in terms of fewest wins. Suddenly now, this club looks to have one of the brightest futures in the NBA. Would you chalk this up to the development of Durant, Green and Westbrook, the coaching change, both or other factors all together?

Welcometoloudcity.com: There are a lot of different reasons why this team has surged in the win column during the second half of the year compared to the first. For starters, this team relocated to Oklahoma City shortly before the season began, so everyone involved with this team, from the players, all the way up to the general manager, had to deal with relocation in some form or another.

While you are trying to prepare for an upcoming season, having to deal with moving can be a huge distraction. You have all kinds of decisions to make from small things like what personal belongings you are going to take/leave, all the way up to deciding and going through the process of putting your house on the market, and making living arrangements in the new city. Things like this can be tremendously stressful to begin with, then you add having to prepare for a new basketball season all while having to get used to a new city, state, and overall very different environment. I personally think the relocation had a lot to do with the teams 3-29 start.

The second factor, and maybe the biggest, has been the promotion of Scott Brooks as head coach. PJ Carlesimo was originally brought in for his defensive influence, but after just 12 games, it was already quite clear that he was not the right guy for the job. In all honesty, if it hadn't been for the relocation, and the team hoping to have some kind of continuity through the move, he'd probably have been fired in the offseason. Scott Brooks has come in and done a tremendous job working with and getting through to these youthful players. Being a younger guy in general and a first time head coach, I think the players can identify with him a lot better than a guy like PJ. He's in much the same position of his coaching career that these young players are in their basketball careers.

The third and final factor I'll mention here is Sam Presti, and the roster moves he's made during the season. Aside for the rescinded Tyson Chandler deal, Presti has not made any blockbuster moves, but the ones he did make were carefully calculated and executed. The acquisition of Thabo Sefolosha for the worst of the 3 Thunder first round picks this year has been nothing short of phenomenal. Thabo has injected a defensive mentality into this team that just wasn't there before his arrival. I think his work ethic, and relentless defensive play is starting to rub off on these younger players.

The other big pre-trade deadline trade was ridding themselves of Chris Wilcox for Malik Rose. While on paper, this didn't look like a trade of any impact, it has paid off huge dividends for this team. They got rid of Weezy, who apparently was becoming a distraction in the locker room, and filled his position with a veteran guy who came in an surprisingly contributed a lot more than was ever expected. Sam Presti is the best up and coming GM in the game. Keep your eyes on the moves he makes, and you will be impressed.

2. RaptorsHQ: Us Raptors fans are in the strange position of looking at what your club's GM has done with envy in regards to building a solid, young foundation. What do you envision Presti doing this off-season in terms of key moves?

Welcometoloudcity.com: I really think he's going to continue to quietly improve this team. I don't expect he'll make any Ray Allen/Jeff Green caliber trades, but with Presti you never know, he could very easily pull out a deal no one expects, which in the end, usually pays huge dividends. Depending on where the ping pong balls land, he's most likely to add some depth at guard or go after some help at the center position. He's also loaded with all those draft picks, so there really is no telling exactly what he's got up his sleeve. Personally, I hope he can find someone to take Earl Watson and his 6 Mil+ Contract off our hands, especially now the he's riding the bench anyway. With the 2010 Free Agent Bonanza coming next year, surely someone will want, and pay for that expiring contract.

3. RaptorsHQ: Keys to tonight's game; what does OK City need to do to get the W? (Or do they even want one considering the club's are possibly fighting for draft lottery seeding?)

Welcometoloudcity.com: I think this team is definitely beyond not wanting to get W's to improve seeding. These young guys are hungry and are doing everything they can to win games, no matter the opponent, and no matter their own record, they want to win, and they will fight until that clock ticks all zeroes to try and get that win. The biggest key for tonights game is going to be slowing down Chris Bosh. Nenad Krstic and Nick Collison have become a pretty good tag team in the middle, here in the latter part of the season, and if they can put up better numbers combined than Bosh, I think they'll have a good shot at winning the game. This is about the only time you'll see me rooting against CB4 as I'm a pretty big fan of the guy, and have said more than once over at WTLC that he'd make a nice addition to our young, up and coming ballclub.

A big thanks to Ryen for that breakdown and hopefully the Raptors won't get posterized by Durant tonight like they did last time these teams met.

Much has been made of the earlier loss to the Supersonics...er...Thunder, but it should have surprised no one. Last year, the Raptors lost to the Sonics in Seattle with a far more balanced team. Now, the Raptors are going to be looking for revenge against yet another bottom feeder of the NBA.

1) Continue to play hard in the interior -

The Raptors have shown an ability to attack the interior of these bottom-rung teams by establishing a post game and by crashing the offensive glass. They must continue this trend against one of the better rebounding teams in the NBA. The Thunder are 4th in the league in rebounding and the Raptors have to try and make sure they establish their post game early so that they can put the Thunder in some foul trouble. We've also seen the success of attacking the interior over the past few games and the Raptors should not shy away from muscling their way into the Oklahoma City paint.

2) Answer Questions -

We saw a little of the developing chemistry between Jose Calderon and Shawn Marion recently, but the development process has to continue. With only a few games left in the year, the Raptors have to keep establishing the value of their free agents as well as figure out their plan to move forward in the off-season. Which pieces on the Raptors squad will fit into the next new identity that the Raptors will try and establish? Is the coaching staff going to remain the same or go through a drastic change in the off season? These decisions are vitally important to the future of the franchise moving forward.

3) Attack the Ball Handlers -

Know which team has the worst turnovers in the NBA? That's right, the Thunder. With over 16.5 per game over the course of the year, the Thunder have proven to be a team that has difficulty keeping possession of the ball. In fact, between Green, Westbrook, and Durant, the Thunder find 8.8 of their turnovers per game. That's power forward, your point guard, and your star player that constantly bobble the ball. The Raptors should have ample opportunity to exploit this major weakness and come out with a win.

When we talk about what the goals should be for the Raptors for the remainder of the season, we can all at least agree that there has to be an eye towards the future. There's no real argument from anyone that the Raptors are still a strong contender for the final playoff spot. No, the arguments all stem from the future direction that this club should take. Fans all have an opinion on the matter, but finding a concensus seems to be the problem right now.

Luckily, there's only one man's opinion that matters.

If only we could read his mind.

Vicious D